Tag Archives: environmental history

A Bit of Horticultural History

Most of the time I have a fairly clear and sure sense of why my work as a historian, my vocation in life, has value–to the individual, to society, to the world. Part of the reason for this is that historians (and scholars in the humanities in general) are constantly being asked to defend their existence, which an increasingly technophilic society cannot seem to comprehend or justify.

Other times, though, I am struck by the absurdity of what I do and by the fact that somewhere, some university department is willing to give me permanent, irrevocable lifetime employment to do it. (At least, theoretically; I’m exactly not drowning in tenure offers.) This morning, for example, I spent most of my time sifting through Victorian gardening manuals in preparation for a conference paper proposal. I understood how my developing topic might benefit historians and especially how presenting it would benefit my career, but I’m not sure what more transcendent value my razor thin comment on current debates in the justly unsung sub-discipline of the History of Gardening might have.

Thankfully, as I often do, I distracted myself by stumbling upon a bit of trivia. It has absolutely no relevance to my topic, but I found this clip from the 1846 Gardener’s Chronicle to be interesting and (as good history so often is) just a little silly:

Edible Bird-nests of China.—Of the great mass of edible bird-nests which are consumed in China, and now also in Europe, the Philippine Isles furnish a considerable portion. Our attention, however, may be more particularly directed to the eatable sea-weeds which are found on the coasts of the Philippines, of the Bashus [W. Indonesia], of the Japan islands, of the Malaccas, &c., and which serve for food to the inhabitants as well as for exportation.

In the markets of Macao and Canton we have seen large boxes of such dried Tangles which had been imported from Japan. The species of algae which constitutes this branch of commerce is the Sphaerococcus cartilaginous…which, abounding as it does in the Indian Ocean, is the common food of the [swallow] (Hirundo esculenta L.), and serves for the construction of its valuable nest. The swallow devours the fresh Tangle, and after allowing it to macerate for some time in its stomach, ejects the mass converted to a pulp or jelly, with which it moulds its nest….In cooking them [the nests] are seasoned with a variety of fine spices, and deservedly hold the first rank among the delicacies of a Chinese table.

The Japanese had the sagacity to perceive that those precious bird-nests were only composed of sea-weeds, and they now prepare the substructure of them by artificial process. The Tangles, which are found in great quantities on their coasts, are gathered, and, after being dried and pounded, are boiled down to a thick jelly, which is drawn or poured out into long threads like macaroni, and then sent into commerce under the name of Gin-shan.

…[The] dry Gin-shan may be broken into small pieces and thrown into broth as it is brought warm to the table. In a minute’s time it swells, and appears like transparent vermicelli. In this state it forms a not unpleasant sort of food, which, though highly nutritive, is easily digested. How great and general the consumption of these edible Tangles must be in Japan appears from the circumstance that in all the geographical or statistical works relating to that empire, wherever they are found, they are mentioned as one of the remarkable products of the country. We have been induced to enlarge on this matter the more particularly as much notice has latterly been excited by the Carrageen Moss, which is nothing but the dried Sphaerococcus crispus, found in vast abundance on the western and northern coasts of the British Isles. In its qualities it would seem to be perfectly analogous to the Sphaerococcus cartilagineus setaceus, yielding like it a rich and nutritive jelly.

The British would need to wait nearly a decade before they could get a first hand look at Japan and realize that birds’ nests (real or artificial) did not form a substantial part of the Japanese diet. Meanwhile, carrageen moss did become part of the British (and global) diet in the form of carrageenan, although its “rich and nutritive” qualities are now widely questioned.

All of which brings me full circle back to a plausible twenty-first-century relevance, which–however thin–is more than enough to reassure me that something I’m doing has relevance to someone somewhere for some vague but probably legitimate reason. And that’s apparently good enough for me.

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It’s an Arbor Day Miracle: A History of the Tennessee Badlands

Image by UNC Press

Duncan Maysilles’s Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South’s Greatest Environmental Disasters is not actually a history of the Tennessee Badlands so much as it is a history of the legal battles being fought over the smelter smoke that created the badlands. Consequently, for those unaccustomed to environmental or legal history, the narrative can be quite dry. The discussion of legal principles and courtroom delay tactics, interspersed with obscure Latin, is spiced up only with the occasional turn to the chemical reaction of sulfur smoke with water in the air and the resultant effects on top soil. All in all, they are about the two dullest historical imaginable. Yet Maysilles crafts such an interesting narrative about such an unjustly obscure subject, that the curious reader can bear with the limits of his genre long enough to see the story to its end. The result is a fascinating little book that should be of interest to legal historians, environmental historians, and those who, like me, found themselves living right in the backyard of one of the most curious environmental anomalies in America.

The Ducktown Basin, Maysilles explains, was a geography that cried out for disaster. The rich copper deposits right on the surface were too tempting for miners to ignore. Transportation deficiencies made the raw materials too expensive to transport off site to smelt. The sulfur content of the rocks was unusually high, creating unusually toxic smelting smoke. The geography of the basin was such that the smoke, once in the air, could not escape and dissipate into the atmosphere. The moist climate of the temperate rainforest meant that the chemicals were constantly being delivered back into the the soil in the form of toxic rain. The resulting concentration of chemicals in the air and water stripped the soil, killed the trees, and launched a legal battle between the state of Georgia and the mining companies that made it all the way to the Supreme Court on multiple occasions.

Intrigued as I was by this untold story and fortunate enough to be going to east Tennessee for a visit, I took the opportunity to drive down to Ducktown and see what remained of the infamous badlands created through ignorance, negligence, and geographical misfortune. The answer: very little. At the Ducktown museum, which commemorates both the mine and the unusual topography it created, the woman behind the desk took me with pride to a satellite photo of the region from some decades ago. She recalled with pride, “The only two man made things you could see from space were the Great Wall of China and the Tennessee Badlands.” The nostalgia poured out of her as she remembered a time when, stripped of all flora and fauna, she need not worry about snakes or mosquitoes like her neighbors outside the basin in the lush Tennessee mountain forests. “It’s too bad,” she told me, “because we just look like everyone else now.” Maysilles tells a different story, one of workers who had to have separate car for work and everything else because just by driving into the basin the air would begin to peel away the paint. He shares, perhaps for the first time for modern eyes, the stories of small subsistence farmers who had their land stripped of its fertility and, when they protested, found themselves fired from the mines where they worked to supplement their income. He tells of a single woman who spent years in court seeking damages from the mining companies and won, only to have her settlement reduced to one dollar on appeal. Memory is truly a curious phenomenon, and it is difficult to sort out whose story should take precedence: Maysilles, the outside critic, or the woman at the museum who grew up in Ducktown and whose husband was a mine worker.

In any case, the story does not linger in the confusing days of the Tennessee Badlands. Cooperative ventures by the government and the various industries who have controlled the mining companies over the years have struggled to make the basin green again. These herculean efforts to reforest have been largely rewarded, though not immediately and not without struggle and expense. Driving over the crest and into the basin, we noticed no difference between the forests without and the forests within. The Ducktown Basin is teeming with life again, even snakes and mosquitoes. As the reforestation began to take hold, many in the basin, I suspect the woman at the museum among them, lobbied to have a piece of the badlands preserved as a memorial. It was actually this memorial that I had traveled out to see, a relic of the way the basin had looked when it was an environmental catastrophe and a tourist attraction. Here then, is the arbor day miracle. The reclamation efforts have been so successful, life so insistent on reclaiming the dead basin, that it is a struggle to keep the last little bit of badlands in its pristine, unnatural state. Here it is, as it appeared at the time of my visit, trying to fight off the invasion of trees, but failing so completely that the little saplings are springing up even in the steep slope that terminates in a flooded mineshaft:

Ducktown Badlands

Maysilles has given the curious and patient reader a wonderful glimpse into a largely ignored subject. His interest is primarily in the way the legal battle continues to be cited in major environmental cases today. Mine was in the hidden treasure that had been in my backyard all the years I lived in Tennessee but that I had never known about until I left. A law student told me recently that she loved the way Maysilles had made obscure legal principles comprehensible, in ways that even her text books couldn’t. Whatever it may be, if something about Ducktown has peaked your curiosity, I highly encourage picking up this book. I also wholeheartedly recommend that anyone in the region make a journey down to Ducktown to explore. The drive is beautiful (no matter what direction you come from), the community is quaint, and the history is engaging.

And if you should stop in and see the precious little old woman at the museum desk, tell her you read about her online and that there are still people fascinated by her community, even if they “just look like everyone else now.”

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Parsing Justice: Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift

Image by MIT Press

In the course of batting around with a colleague the possibility of doing a paper about a biblical approach to environmental justice, I picked up Jill Lindsey Harrison’s Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice and, candidly, was disappointed. For those who are not familiar with the environmental justice movement, as I wasn’t until recently, it is an attempt to correct what are seen as deficiencies in earlier environmental activism. It does this by recognizing the overlap between environmental and social justice problems, especially the disproportionate environmental burden born by those who are socially and economically marginalized and the same peoples’ lack of voice in crafting environmental policy. Though the movement has been around for decades, and gained steam in the nineties, recently historians (like Ted Steinberg and Thomas G. Andrews), sociologists (like Harrison), and activists have begun to stress more and more that when environmental disasters “strike,” they affect the poor and racial minorities more acutely than anyone else. It is a trenchant critique of the system, one that demands the attention of any and all concerned either with environmental ethics or with social equity. I certainly do not want to imply by my critique of Harrison that there is some flaw in the environmental justice perspective. My problem with Pesticide Drift is more academic and less foundational.

Harrison’s book is not, first and foremost, an apology for environmental justice, though she does more than her fair share of preaching. Instead, she turns her critical eye on the movement’s own perception of its place in the greater environmental discussion to point out an error in thinking among environmental justice advocates.

My aim in this book is to both uphold and amend this EJ argument. This book pivots around…a case that illustrates in sharp, present detail how the workings of “raw power” shift the burden of pesticide pollution to the bodies of California’s most marginalized and vulnerable residents. That said, I also challenge the claim that environmental inequalities exist because mainstream (i.e., non-EJ) environmental politics are devoid of justice. I contend instead that environmental inequalities emerge from the cruelty and malfeasance, but also from the ways in which many well-intentioned actors are engaging in efforts to make California agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

Or, in other words, the road to the toxic contamination of Hispanic communities is paved with good intentions. It strikes me as something of an obvious point, but one that undoubtedly still needed to be made considering how haughty activists can be in the presentation of their causes as just and their methods as the lone means of achieving that justice. So, with the aim of exploring how alternate theories of justice have unintentionally collaborated with pesticides to create an environmental and social disaster, Harrison gives an overview of the pesticide drift problem in southern California and the many fateful ways that individuals, industry, and the regulatory bodies of the state have failed to prevent it.

Except that Harrison never actually proves her central claim, that there are other theories of justice operating in the various responses to environmental issues. That is not, of course, to say that she is wrong. Her proposition, having been stated, is so self-evident that it undoubtedly will stand without a proper defense. Her book, however, lacks a raison d’être without it. Harrison proposes the existence of two alternate theories of justice: the libertarian and communitarian. The former sees justice as primarily concerned with upholding personal property rights. The latter holds the community is best positioned to locate and enact justice. It is a simple taxonomy, so simple that it elucidates nothing for the reader. It would be just as convincing to say that a libertarian sense of freedom is centered on private property, or a libertarian conception of personal well-being. Or you could leave out “justice” altogether and say that libertarians focus on private property. Communitarians focus on the community. It says nothing about “justice” to collapse an entire worldview into it: Christian justice is cristocentric, utilitarian justice stresses utility. Harrison had the opportunity to explore the notions of justice–the ideas, the impulses, the cultural drivers–that inspire these alternate responses to environmental issues, but she declined to pursue any deeper than the most superficial definition of what “justice” might mean outsider her own movement.

Instead, she spends the majority of her time taking libertarianism and communitarianism to task more generally. (After all, not having defined their visions of justice with any rigor, it would be hard to do otherwise.) Libertarians have a false hope in the power of the person working in concert with the market. Individuals, while laudable in their efforts to farm sustainably, inevitably lack the ability to affect such a systemic issue as pesticide drift and struggle with the economic disincentive to do so. Industry, less laudable (why is not clear) has an even more powerful economic disincentive to create sustainable farming techniques, not when the pesticide industry is a multi-billion dollar quasi-monopoly for a handful of companies. Politicians, incentivized by industry, are content to shirk off their responsibility in exchange for campaign contributions. Communitarians are similarly naive in their assumption that a community can correct a structural issue in society and achieve social justice. Even agrifood advocates, the rank and file of the sustainable agriculture activists reading Michael Pollan and shopping at Whole Foods, reflect the kind of wealthy middle class assumptions about choice that cannot function for the impoverished communities that bear the brunt of environmental injustice. The problem with both mindsets is that problems of the size and scale of pesticide drift “require substantial government intervention” (189).*

Harrison is more than willing to set out detailed proposals for how to enact the environmental justice vision of justice on a national level, and for those who are interested only in exploring environmental justice policy, I can with all sincerity recommend (at least the last chapter of) Pesticide Drift. But for anyone expecting to have presented a compelling new intellectual framework for considering the way justice operates in environmental politics, Harrison proves an unforgivable tease. The book which will explore justice as an environmental concept in pre-EJ environmentalists, in industry, or in alternate political philosophies cries out to be written. Perhaps, if time and good fortune permit, we may yet make a contribution to that discussion by considering the implications a biblical approach to justice might have for environmental justice. In the meantime, Harrison has promised to fill a void and only stepped in to show us how empty it still is.

*(It is here that the regular reader will expect me to launch into a tirade about the gross inadequacy of the state to achieve anything of lasting good. I did just that in my personal conversations with my colleague who, like Harrison, seems to believe that after fifty years of intensive federal environmental legislation, the reason we are not seeing the kind of improvements we want is because we are simply not surrendering enough power to the state. I won’t distract myself with that nonsense here.)

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This is the House that Chris Built

I did not enjoy reading 1493. I fully expected that I would, given my recent foray into environmental history, but it turns out that the very act of gaining knowledge in advance sapped the joy from the reading. Mann, it seemed, had little new to offer me that I hadn’t already seen argued with more force and clarity elsewhere. In fact, I found the reading so dreary, so basic and redundant, that I had entirely discarded my original intention to review it here. This past week, however, the book came up in a discussion of those who were either new to the field of environmental history or who were outside the field of history altogether. Their unabashed enthusiasm about the work led me to reconsider Mann’s purpose and thus to reevaluate the book’s value.

Charles Mann hardly needs my recommendation. His earlier book, 1491, was a bestseller. That work explored the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. This latest work, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, is sometimes, though inadequately, cast as a sequel. In fact, what Mann sets out to do is to update and make accessible the pioneering work of Alfred Crosby first expressed in books like The Colombian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism. The basic premise is that in inaugurating the modern age of truly global intercourse Columbus did not discover a new world so much as create one. The rapid, primarily unintentional, transport of organisms big and small, the change in the way the land was used, and massive demographic shifts made the world of today what it is, making 1493 the beginning of our present age.

This conceptualization of the world is, unsurprisingly, necessarily flawed. Global intercourse no more started with Columbus than electricity started with Thomas Edison. The first voyage of Columbus makes for a convenient watershed moment, and Columbus himself is an important if exaggerated figure. Nevertheless, a view of history in grand, sweeping moments of dramatic change pervades the book, even as it is at odds with the way professional historians generally conceive of historical change.

Beyond this, however, Mann does a phenomenal job both of engaging serious scholarship in environmental history and, in spite of not being under the strictures of academic ethics, citing precisely from whom he derives the ideas he synthesizes. Those familiar with the field will notice the strong hand not only of Alfred Crosby but William Cronon, John McNeil, and countless others. Of course, if those names are familiar to you, as they are to me, then you may find nothing to intrigue you in Mann. For the vast majority of the reading public, however, for whom the Colombian exchange is still little more than the uneven trade of smallpox for syphilis, Mann opens up a whole new world of just how dramatically the transition to large scale global commerce has altered the world. Extended sections on potatoes, rubber, and mosquitoes introduce the reader to the all-too-often unwritten changes that the Americas brought to the world. A host of lesser actors appear: earthworms, honey bees, pigs, malaria, sweet potatoes, and more. All, Mann successfully and correctly argues, typically had a much larger impact on the course of human history than did the human agents conventional history is preoccupied with.

So in the end, it is impossible to fault Mann’s work for what it is: a synthesis of historical scholarship intended for a general audience not familiar with the material. The reader who knows this can find in Mann an unusually useful tool, infinitely more accessible than the standard work by historians and even more dramatically superior in its scholarship when compared to the pop histories of journalists, not to mention talk show hosts. It is a long book, prohibitive for those unaccustomed to anything more intense than a blog post (not, of course, to disparage that medium), but Mann’s style will generally appeal to avid readers making the heft bearable. Time and inclination permitting, 1493 is an excellent place to get your foot in the door of the cutting edge of one of the youngest subdisciplines in historical research.

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The Wisdom of Benton MacKaye

Benton MacKaye is not a figure most are familiar with. Avid hikers will know him as the originator of the Appalachian Trail, but most know little beyond that. I don’t exclude myself from that category, as I only just encountered an in depth treatment of him in Paul Sutter’s history of the wilderness movement, Driven Wild. It was there that I came across this incisive quote about the nature of cities and the need of humanity to reestablish its connections with the natural world:

The modern metropolis is the product, not of its immediate region, but of the continent and the world. It is a nerve center in a world-wide industrial system. Less and less is it indigenous; more and more is it standardized and exotic. It depends on tentacles rather than on roots. The effect of an unbalanced industrial life, it is the cause of an unbalanced recreational life. For its hectic influence widens the breach between normal work and play by segmenting the worst elements in each. It divorces them into drubbing mechanized toil on the one hand and into a species of “lollipopedness” on the other.

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The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature is a work of sufficient size and importance to warrant a full review of its contents. William Cronon, rock star of the environmental history world, offered significantly more effusive praise in his foreword: “It is surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago. No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with “nature” or “the environment.” No one who cares about he American past can ignore what Fiege has to say.” Nor should they. Fiege’s work–which takes nine standard topics in American history and refashions them to include environmental history–demands engagement from scholars and its easy style invites it from the general public. Necessarily, a work which is linked by a common methodology rather than a common chronology or theme will be somewhat uneven, but Fiege succeeds more often than he fails in challenging the standard historiography and revolutionizing the way environmental history applies to more “conventional” history. But, as much as Fiege’s work demands full engagement, a particular chapter has so seized my attention as to compel me to stop the general review there and turn to a more particular issue: the development of the atomic bomb and Fiege’s attempts to justify it or, at the very least, mitigate the responsibility of the scientists involved.

In a chapter entitled “atomic sublime,” Fiege directly challenges the traditional historiography of the Manhattan Project. The interpretation of the scientists as cold, rationalists with an instrumental view of nature has dominated our collective memory of the makers of the atomic bomb. Instead, Fiege proposes to proceed from the assumption that “the atomic scientists and their families felt a deep affinity for all that was human, natural, and good.” This is, not in itself, an objectionable conclusion. In fact, the assumption that natural scientists should have a love of and fascination with nature is admirable. The problems arise, however, with Fiege moves beyond this to argue that the drive of the scientists to make the bomb proceed from this love of the natural and the good rather than in spite of it. Thus, at the close of the opening section of the chapter, Fiege drops this bomb (so to speak):

Perhaps a powerful attraction to nature in all its guises, whether pine trees or submicroscopic particles, encouraged intellectual processes that enabled the scientists to imagine and design the bomb. Perhaps–and here is a truly unsettling thought–the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.

That is, sure enough, a deeply unsettling thought. It is, in fact, one that I find acutely unsettling given my prejudices against violence in general and against the bomb in particular. That anything which is inherently good can lead to something so unequivocally evil as the atrocities perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to me so impossible on its face as to be easily dismissed. And yet, as a historian, I compelled myself to give, as far as I was humanly able, a fair reading to Fiege’s argument. I hoped that perhaps, at the end, I would find that the scientists had been coerced into creating the bomb by the government(which I am always happy to cast as the ultimate enemy) or that they had had been duped by the military about the applications of their new technology, that it would function only as a deterrent. Unfortunately, Fiege only convinced me that the scientists fooled themselves.

Fiege offers a very compelling, if sentimental, portrait of the love of the scientists for nature. Each had been drawn into science through some love of and curiosity about the natural. Fiege likens scientific research to the explorations of Victorian adventurers (whitewashing over the imperial designs of both). He tells of the times at Los Alamos where, when they were not engulfed in creating weapons of mass destruction, the scientists hiked the canyons and searched for rare cacti and waxed poetic about desert sunsets. At Los Alamos “the scientists fashioned a community that embodied their life-affirming values.” It was these very values that led them to collaborate on the atomic bomb.

How is that possible? Fiege stresses that the scientists sincerely believed that a single use of the bomb would be so dramatic, so devastating, that it would inaugurate an era of world peace–ultimately saving more lives than it took–and fling the doors of society open to allow a utopian global community. The description would be comic had Fiege intended it as a farce, but he truly believes that the scientists, through purely humanitarian motives, were compelled to create the most destructive weapon in human history. Never mind that anyone with a high school level grasp of history could have easily demonstrated that bigger weapons make for bigger wars, not peace. The scientists, as the day of completion drew nearer, began to have these same realizations but, rather than abandoning the project, instead convinced themselves that a benign demonstration of its power would be sufficient to establish their idyllic society.

These were among the most brilliant men and women in history, and what Fiege has demonstrated is not their pure motives but the ability of brilliant people for brilliant rationalizations. It is impossible to deny the obvious confluence of the greatest successes in atomic science and the most destructive global war in history. What’s more, it is difficult to not assume that the one caused the other, especially since the specific purpose of the scientists at the Manhattan Project was to develop a super weapon for use against the Germans and Japanese. What motivated the creation of the atomic bomb was precisely what motivated World War II: fear and self-interest. Fiege notes that in spite of their humanitarian concerns, scientists flocked to Los Alamos to create the bomb. In spite of their moral qualms about its use, they completed the project.

The true nature of their motives is apparent enough in their language and behavior. Just as it is apparent that wartime fervor drove the scientists to Los Alamos in spite of their theoretical reluctance, the reaction of the community at Los Alamos to Hiroshima testifies to their true feelings whatever their theoretical moral turmoil. “When news of Hiroshima reached Los Alamos, the atomic community celebrated. The revelry was spontaneous and intense. ‘We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other,’ Richard Feynman wrote.” The party continued on into the night, was formalized in a meeting in the town auditorium where Oppenheimer gave a speech received by resounding cheers, and repeated itself when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, though Fiege is careful to point out that, for Nagasaki, “the spirit just wasn’t there.” The scientists could convince themselves they were for world peace not victory, but when success and victory were at hand, they gave no thought to life or peace or morality. Instead, they indulged in the self-delusion typified by David Bradbury, child of Los Alamos, who later advocated the use of atomic weaponry for population control but insisted that he was “not pro-war. I’m most strongly pro-nature, pro-earth, pro-tree.”

It was a beautiful and thorough deception, no doubt, but it was still false and ultimately incomplete. The scientists, history remembers, went on to regret their mistake, to see the atomic bomb for what it really was. A horror, both in principle and in its tragic application in Japan. An enormity of the modern mind that is without justification and without legitimate purpose. That this realization hit only when the war was over and a cessation of hostilities (but by no means peace) was won demonstrates the true root of the scientists motives. They were engaged in an epic struggle for nation or, if you prefer, self-preservation. They were not, as Fiege concluded, pursuing the good, the beautiful, the true with an innocent curiosity and in a context of “openness, toleration, and democracy.”* As much as Fiege may wish it were so, the heart of war is not “deep moral ambiguity” and the scientists are not absolved by their good intentions. In fact, Fiege neglects to entertain the seemingly logical conclusion that they had no such benign intentions, only convincing rationalizations. It is in the clear distinction between motives and justifications that Fiege’s interpretation flounders.

Republic of Nature is worth every penny of its price, both for the times when it is compelling right and the times when it is unnervingly wrong. The success of any historical work is in provoking critical reaction, and while Fiege is unsuccessful in redeeming the Manhattan Project through environmental history, he is at least capable of forcing the reader to reconsider it. The final judgment, however, remains the same. Fiege’s is a wonderful book, even if at times it has a perverse logic. The reader ought to find repugnant (and blatantly hypocritical) the attempt to sanctify the atomic assault on Japan with the passing observation that most of the civilians killed had acquiesced to Japan’s “military conquests, slaughter of civilians, and suicidal resistance,” but it is this same willingness to challenge conventional interpretations that convincingly reinterprets the Salem witch trials as a conflict between the ideal and the real in nature. The reader simply must keep in mind that not all history is in need of revision.

*(Here Fiege is at his most disturbing and his most inadvertently brilliant when he points to the dark fact that democracy allowed the US and Britain to create the bomb and authoritarianism prevented Germany from achieving the same end. Suddenly it seems that if ever their were a critique of democracy, the atomic bomb is it.)

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